Monday, December 15th, 2008 | General, The business, Uncategorized

On the business side of costume design, there are few things more important than contracts. Okay, truth be told, budgets are more important, but contracts are what guarantee your employment.

I am a full-time freelancer, so it seems like I am constantly signing contracts. In triplicate.

Because they are generated by each theatre company, I really have to read them closely. There is no such thing as a “standard contract” for designers.

Different Kinds of Contracts

Some theatre contracts are long, extensive documents that have everything from how much you’ll be paid, to how many comp tickets you get, to whether the theatre retains the right to use photos of your work in their advertising next season.

Some theatres include the budget, everything that you as the designer will be producing with that budget, and whether dry cleaning costs are covered in the budget.  (By the end of a run, costumes are pretty smelly, so they do have to be cleaned, and most of them – particularly for period shows – have to be dry cleaned, which can get pricey.)

I’ve also had contracts that are nothing more than an email from the artistic director saying, “We are hiring Jessica to design costumes for ‘play X’ and we will pay her $1.” (Okay, so I DO get more than $1, but we just don’t figure out the hourly wage … that’s just too depressing. Let’s just say you don’t do theatre to get rich.)

While that last one may seem like the “best” of the options – the whole less-is-more outlook on life – it’s saying a whole lot through what it doesn’t include.

Do they not include more text because they’ve never had a problem? (Most of the niggly stuff in any sort of contract comes from either problems theatres have had in the past, or an over-involved lawyer who sits on the Board of Directors.) It’s often a good situation if the simple contract is borne of this reasoning. It probably indicates that they’re pretty easy to work with, they work hard to hire well (meaning that the actors and other designers I will work with are probably pretty cool), and if problems come up they’ll be more interested in working together to find solutions than to look at me expectantly.

But there’s another possibility for the simple email-type contract. They might be a brand new theatre company that doesn’t know any better. These situations can be scary for me as the designer, because if the theatre is very young and those running it are relatively inexperienced in the world of professional theatre, you can pretty much lay odds that chaos will ensue. (That said, I’ve had some absolutely fabulous experiences with brand new theatre groups. I’m just saying that it’s a much larger gamble to take on work with an untried group of theatre people. We are, after all, Theatre People!)

What I Look For

There are some specific lines I look for in every contract that is sent to me. Here are some examples:

“The designer will be paid a flat fee for time and materials.”

I will not sign a contract that has this phrase in it. This is a personal choice, and obviously everyone should make their own decisions about what they will and will not do, but here is my rationale. Even if I plan everything out, and save enough of that budget for my “fee,” the director or producer can still come in at the last minute and demand that I change everything. Because of the way that clause is written, I have no option but to loose my fee money. I am legally bound to do so.Setting aside debates about artistic integrity, it’s totally inexcusable to expect me (or any professional designer) to work for free. Some might go so far as to call it robbery. It’s a bad way of doing business with designers. If you’re a designer, I’d encourage you not to agree to that. If you’re a producer or director who has that in your contract, I’d encourage you to take it out. It’s just not cool.

“If the designer goes over budget, the overage amount will be deducted from their design fee.”

Although it sounds very much the same, this phrase gives me some grounds to stand on with the director and producer. If I stay within budget, but the director or producer come in at the last minute, demaning a complete re-working of the show, I can refuse on budgetary grounds. I can appeal to the artistic director or whomever is next up the theatrical food chain. It’s less likely that I will be forced to go over budget. This gives us room to talk. No doubt, some lawyer out there would say that I’m out of luck with either of these sentences in a contract, but it has been my experience that this latter situation typically has other language in it providing for arbitration in the event of disagreements that protects me. So there is a tangible difference.

Now hopefully I always work with good, kind people, who won’t try and take my design skills for their show without paying for them, but as someone once told me, “Contracts aren’t there for when the good people are running the show, they are there for when the good people are hit by a bus and the evil people take control of the theatre.”

The last thing I would say about contracts is this: NEVER work without one.

Not even for a friend.

One of the good things about contracts (busses and evil people notwithstanding) is that they set expectations for both sides. I know what to expect in terms of time, support, budget, and all manner of things. The theatre or film production company knows what they’re paying me, what I’m delivering for the money they’re paying me, deadlines and other details. If we’re all clear up front about these things, there’s far less room for “interpretation.”

My tale of woe as it pertains to an uncontracted agreement …

I once agreed to “help” with a show that couldn’t afford to formally hire me to design. I agreed to just be a “consultant” to the director. My understanding of this was that I would come up with a Costume Plot (the subject of a future blog entry) and he would find the costumes himself.  But when I didn’t do both tasks – the Plot as well as finding the costumes, the director/producer was angry.

Clearly his understanding of our unwritten agreement was very different from my own. See the problem?

Trying to be a good business person, I suggested that he simply not pay me for the work I had done.  To his credit, he paid me half of what we had agreed upon. But this left both of us with a less than plesant memory of the experience. No one wins. Yuck.

The moral of this story is that if you’re moving into the professional realm of theatrical or film design, get your agreement in writing. Nothing else counts.

Anyone else have to learn this the hard way? Or is it just me?

10 Comments to Contracts

March 2, 2009

Do you ever contract for JUST building new costumes, and not the fitting, cleaning, finding, maintaining and putting away properly of their own costumes? Also, can you comment on the proper storage of costumes? One more, have you ever costumed a ballet company?
Thanks!! Your blog is fantastic!!

March 2, 2009

Wow! Lots of really good questions! Let me take a quick swing at them.

1. No, I’ve never contracted only for building new costumes. If you’re contracted only for the building of costumes, typically, you’re a draper; not a designer. Although some theatres get confused on that point in the hiring process. (Look next week for a blog entry that is an interview with a LORT-D theatre’s Producing Director for more on this point.)

2. Proper storage of costumes is a huge subject. It’s a blog post all unto itself. I’ll try to write that in the next few weeks for you.

3. I’ve not yet worked with a ballet company, but I have done dance costumes for several musicals – including A Chorus Line, which is basically ballet dancewear. The process of pulling a story exclusively from non-vocal music is incredibly exciting to me; I’ve just not had the opportunity to do it (as yet).

Thanks for visiting and commenting! Keep the questions coming!

March 4, 2009

thanks! I’ll be checking back! I work with a ballet company and we created a huge “skirt” for mother ginger. Not sure if you’re familiar with the nutcracker, but she’s 12′ diameter and 5′ tall! I’d love to share the pics with you, and hear what a real costumer thinks! Where can I send them? This is where my interest in storage comes in! Thank you so much! Again, fantastic blog!!

July 28, 2011

For 23 years I have been a salaried costume designer for a company that does mostly cruise ships. Business is slow. They have given me premission to free lance on the side. I have no idea what to charge? Concept and illustrations? If they want me to have it executed, fabric shopping? Then to shop off the rack wardrobe, jewelry, accessories, wigs, shoes etc. Is shopping an hourly fee? Any quidance? Wanting to create a website with renderings and final pics which I have have plenty. Not new at this just new a asking for a fee?

August 21, 2011

Contracts are rarely done by the hour if you are the costume designer. They are a flat fee and you work until the work is done. Honestly it rarely works out to more thsn $1 per hour when you add up research, rendering, swatching, shopping, building, and meetings. Not to mention fittings and tech rehersals. Design fees range from $5000 to $25000 with a lot of variables. I would start by asking for the union rate, which for theater is based on the size of the theater and the size of the show. You can down load those rates from

Good luck!

John H
January 13, 2012

Hi Jessica,

I am the managing director of a young theatre company in Seattle, STAGEright Theatre . I read your blog post about costume contracts and found it very informative. We are just beginning to use “guest” costume designers for our shows. The reason I say “guest” is because previously, the designs have been done by either us or our family members. We are trying to draw up a simple contract that basically outlines budget, deadlines, compensation, and other benefits (the comps we offer, the publicity that we get from reviewers, etc.). What would you say are your most appreciated parts of the contract the contract? Also, would it be possible to be forwarded a contract of yours (or could you refer me to where we could draft a basic contract) to use as a template?

I have also e-mailed this to you and then thought, “Hey, other people may find this information helpful, too” so I decided to put it on here.

Thanks! – John

January 16, 2012

If I am working with a company for the first time, all parts of the contract are important. Both what is there, and what is not there.

What I consider essentials are:
Name of the production, and dates of employment.
compensation (how much I will be paid, and if it isn’t paid all at once, what the schedule for checks will be) .
deadlines (roughs, prelims, finals, first dress, previews, opening, etc).
Budget (and if applicable, what you expect if one goes over that budget).

Other helpful items are things like comps, housing, transportation reimbursement, the theatre’s expected use of photographs of designs, the theater’s use of photographs of the designer, dispute resolution, gas reimbursement for shopping trips, other expectations (laundry? Returns?) or perks of employment.

If you want to see a union contract, they are available to download on the website. The most basic one is at the very bottom of the page and is called a “union project agreement”. It is probably overkill for what you need, but would be worth looking at just from a layout perspective.

Anyway, I hope that is helpful! Best of luck!

January 23, 2012

Since I’ve found your blog about a week ago, I’ve been devouring it! While I have my theater degree, I fell into costuming towards the latter half of my studies and in comparison to other graduates, I feel like I dont have the same training. Knowing that, I moved back home and begun working with our local professional theater company costuming their shows. That lack of knowledge, especially in the budgeting/contracts/legal aspects of the job really created a mess for me!

I came in mid-season with the company and the first show I worked costumes on was a joint-collaboration with the woman who had been doing them (simply a mother of one of their students who was asked to help and pulled into costuming.) From there we bridged into me undertaking a whole show – student company shows, workshop shows, etc. I was paid minimalistic fees for costuming the shows. Knowing I came in mid-season with a company that did not have large budget, I was willing to work for less than I judged I was worth until I proved myself, and until we could officially work something out. The next season, they hired me as the costume designer and we jumped right into the first show… Let’s just say that costuming “The King and I” with a budget of only $300… not a simple task! Yet, despite my repeated attempts in asking for a contract so things were in writing, not once was one drawn up. It ended up just being a “verbal agreement.”

Aside from borrowing half the costumes for the show from strangers, my means of keeping the show under budget was to [stupidly] agree to make Anna’s costumes myself and rent/loan them to the theater depending on where the budget stood. I reasoned that the money I put into the costumes would be repaid later when I rented them again or sold them. Yet, when the show ended, the theater tried to say that the outfits were theirs. In a nutshell: they threw a lawyer at me, I sought representation, and it came down to a “he said, she said” verbal agreement because there never was a contract. And in the end, the theater never even wanted the costumes and were insisting that I submit my receipts so they could refund the cost of materials then turn around and sell the costumes back to me at face value! Also called into question was my costumer’s fee. While it was resolved quickly – [I kept the dresses which never left my possesion, they paid me about 85% of what the original costume fee was] it was not pretty. Now, not only won’t return emails asking about creating a contract to collaborate together in the future, but they will ignore me in public. While I still feel they’re being childish and unprofessional, I will NEVER work without a contract again.

November 28, 2012

Since Rex was talking about cruise ships, how much is an average costume design salary for a cruise line? Is this the kind of thing that they will negotiate, or is the salary usually set in stone? How do you get involved in this branch of work?

January 11, 2014

I recently found myself in a peculiarly frustrating position on a show produced by a school. After agreeing to do set and costume design for a show, I was informed that they would not float any part of the budget so that I could actually purchase anything for design, for costume production unless I paid for it myself. The problem was exacerbated by the fact that I simply didn’t Have ” extra money ” of my own to front! And I was told it could be several weeks before the school’s bureaucratic finance department would release reimbursement to me! A further strain was the fact that they Also would not pay my fee until several weeks after the production was finished, not even part of my fee. You can imagine how horrible it was to have actors and director angry at me for not being able to buy items they needed. I was totally stranded and hung out to dry. I’ve been working in theatre design for 25 years and have never encountered such a bizarre practice. There was budget available on paper but I had no access to it. I’d be interested to know if you or any of your followers have ever encountered such a thing and if so, what should I have done or said ?

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